Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has been sitting on my shelves for the better part of a decade now. I picked up a battered used copy ages ago, dipped into a few pages, loved it…and then put it aside because life. Now, having finally returned to it, it’s been one of the bookish highlights of my summer.
Véra and Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship is legendary. Though Vladimir had dalliances with other women and was undoubtedly a difficult person to live with, the two seemed destined to be together: both were intellectual giants — Véra supposedly read War and Peace at age 3; Vladimir at age 6 — were multilingual and worldly, and were even born with the same neurological phenomenon of synesthesia. Vladimir was poised for greatness early on, and Véra understood and accepted that her role was to do everything to make that happen.
Where the Light Gets In by Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Publisher/Year: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Narrator: Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Length: 5 hours, 26 minutes
Source: Personal copy
What it is: A memoir about Kimberly Williams-Paisley’s complicated relationship with her mother, Linda, who was diagnosed with an early-onset rare form of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia in 2014.
Why I read it: I know Williams-Paisley as an actress, but I also follow her on Instagram just to see what she’s reading — it turns out we have very similar tastes in literary fiction! I love memoirs and this one seemed interesting. I was curious to see what kind of book she’d write (also: she strikes me as the type of celebrity who could believably write their own book rather than have it ghostwritten).
What I thought: This is a sad and illuminating memoir. In a relatively short period of time, Linda went from securing million-dollar donations for large foundations to being unable to speak and needing full-time care. Self-conscious at first, the family finally (and with Linda’s consent) decided to be honest with people about what was happening. Williams-Paisley is blunt about her anger and grief over seeing her mother’s decline, though she’s also honest about how she’s somewhat removed from the situation, living out of state with her own family. Much of the day-to-day caregiving fell to her father, who took on the role to the point of burnout in order to keep Linda at home — rather than an assisted living facility — for as long as possible. The book ends with the family in kind of a weird limbo: Linda’s dementia is progressive, but she’s also gone past all of the markers for life-expectancy with this disease. It’s uncharted territory for them.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Publisher/Year: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Source: Personal copy
What it is: Told from five different perspectives in two different timelines, the book is a modern-day dystopia in which abortion and IVF treatments have been outlawed in the United States and a personhood amendment has been passed, granting more rights to embryos than the people carrying them. Single would-be parents hoping to adopt are also out of luck, as only married couples are now allowed to apply.
Why I read it: Reproductive rights + feminist dystopia = my name written all over it. I also loooooove the cover.
What I thought: I’ve seen a lot of references to The Handmaid’s Tale regarding this book, but though it has similar themes regarding reproductive rights, it’s not quite an accurate comparison. The concept of this book is, in many ways, more terrifying because it’s the current political climate taken to its natural conclusion (ex: some states really do keep trying to pass personhood amendments). But while I wanted to love the book, I’m really sad to say that I did not. I’ve read countless books with rotating narrators and shifting chronologies, but the timelines and perspectives in this book were confusing. It took me about half the book to really figure out what was going on. Save for a handful of truly stellar sections, the story took too long to coalesce into something meaningful. I can appreciate the experimental structure, but I don’t think the payoff was worth the effort, especially in the first half.
Greetings from Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta! I’m actually not staying here long at all because my travel plans changed recently; I’m just here on a short layover, and I’ll probably be gone by the time you see this post. I read this book in advance of my trip, though. As you’ll see, this Saroo Brierley’s Calcutta story is so mind-boggling and extraordinary that it’s hard to believe it’s all real!
When he was five years old, Saroo Brierley snuck out with his brother to tag along while his brother cleaned the local rural train station. His brother told him to stay put and wait for him to return, and Saroo fell asleep on a bench. It was night when he awoke, and here was no sign of his brother. Scared and disoriented, Saroo got on a train and fell asleep. When he woke up again, he got off the train, and not recognizing anything, jumped on the next train thinking it would take him back home.
Instead, he arrived in Calcutta and became one of the thousands of children who live on the street. He cried for help, but he didn’t know his full name or the name of his village, so there was little anyone could do to help him. He was more fortunate than most to be taken into an orphanage, and even more fortunate still to be adopted by a loving Australian couple. Still, his past and the questions about what happened to his family haunted him, and with the advent of technology, he got the idea to scour Google Earth to look for landmarks he remembered to track down his village.
In December 1975, George and Kathleen Lutz moved into their new home in Amityville, NY. With three young children and a limited budget, they could hardly believe their luck: the house on 112 Ocean Avenue had everything they wanted at the right price. After they toured the house, they found out why: the previous year, Ronald DeFeo Jr. had gruesomely murdered his parents and four siblings there (true story). Still, when they learned the reason the house was so cheap, they brushed it off.
But from the moment the Lutzes moved in on December 18, weird things started happening. Certain rooms were ice cold no matter what they did. The priest that they’d asked to come and bless the house quickly fled; he became ill and had extreme physical reactions any time he tried to reach out to the Lutzes, even over the phone. George and Kathleen grew moody and lashed out at the children. George found himself waking up at 3:15 a.m. every day like clockwork. One of the children suddenly had a mysterious imaginary friend.
One of my long term reading goals is to get through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, but Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was on my to-read list since long before my Pulitzer project went into effect. I took my last road trip as an opportunity to finally delve into the audiobook, and I could kick myself for not having read this book sooner.
The Good Earth is set in rural China and follows the arc of Wang Lung’s life. It begins at the turn of the twentieth century with Wang Lung eagerly preparing for the arrival of his soon-to-be wife, O-lan. He and his father are poor farmers who have always kept their heads down and worked hard, living by their means and saving what little they had. Wang Lung’s father has arranged a marriage to a humble woman working as a house slave for a landowner, and O-lan’s arrival brings the hope of future sons and prosperity.
Over the years O-lan does her work dutifully and without complaint, and though their marriage is not one of love, she and Wang Lung treat each other with respect and work as a team. She does backbreaking work in the fields and bears Wang Lung sons, and the small family eventually begins to prosper. Even though they have good fortune, they are careful not to spend it frivolously. The ultimate goal is to buy land, and as they grow more prosperous, Wang Lung sets his sights on buying land from the great house of Hwang, where O-lan once worked as a slave. In his mind, all material objects can be lost, but a man with land will always have secure assets.